Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

14 May 2019

For too long, Australian free-to-air television has failed to provide audio description for its audiences. With the upcoming federal election, though, there’s a chance for change, Katie Ellis writes.

Last weekend, Australia’s Labor Party committed to implementing audio description (AD) on Australian broadcast free-to-air television. If elected, Labor promises a $4 million upgrade to the national broadcasters ABC and SBS to facilitate the provision of 14 hours of AD per week starting this year. Earlier this year, Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John even introduced an audio description amendment bill to the Senate that would require all broadcasters to meet this minimum level.

There is no reason the ABC should not already be providing AD to their audiences. A content analysis of programs screened on ABC channels during prime time found that one-quarter of shows already had AD tracks created as part of funding agreements with Screen Australia.

Audio description is a track of narration describing important visual elements of a television show for people who are blind or vision impaired. Australia is the only English-speaking nation in the OECD not to offer AD on television.

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This is in stark contrast to the legislative mandate to include captions for audiences who are D/deaf or hard of hearing on all television content aired between 6am and midnight on the primary digital channels.

There is a stereotype that blind people don’t watch television that has persisted. Recent figures, however, from Comcast and the American Foundation for the Blind indicates that 96 per cent of adults with vision impairment watch the same amount of television as sighted audiences.

Over the past 30 years, the Australian blindness sector has been advocating for AD on Australian television. Their efforts have resulted in two trials: one on free-to-air ABC in 2012 and the other on iView in 2015.

Throughout 2017, the government initiated an AD Working Group, of which I was a member, to identify ways to deliver AD to Australian television audiences. While three options were identified, no clear recommendation was made in the report and little progress has been made since then. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield even wrote to the broadcasters encouraging them to introduce AD on television, but none have come on board. With over 575,000 Australians experiencing blindness or low vision, audio described television has the potential to attract a significant audience sector, particularly if enjoyed with friends or family. With free-to-air television audiences on the decline, broadcasters should be embracing this opportunity.

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Television is becoming increasingly personalised and mobile. Audiences are accessing it in different ways at different times. Research conducted by Curtin University into potential audiences for audio description clearly shows that the reach could go well beyond the blindness sector.

Audiences consisting of television fans, university students, parents of young children, people with autism spectrum disorder, and audiobook readers all reported interest in AD to both multitask while watching television and access more information about shows.

Media reports have shown the potential for audio described television to provide fans access to their favourite television shows while doing other things such as walking their dog or driving. Considering this, it’s not impossible that AD might be embraced by the mainstream in the same way that captions have been.

Television is vital to our sense of social inclusion, as Chris Edwards, CEO of Vision Australia, explained in his response to Labor’s announcement. On top of this, both blind and sighted people in our research overwhelmingly emphasised the importance of audio description as a basic human right.

It is unacceptable that the blindness community have been excluded from this daily pursuit many of us take for granted. Equally, it is time for Australian free-to-air broadcasters to give their audiences the opportunity to experiment with AD. If elected, Labor will hopefully steer the country onto the right path.

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